Councilman’s use of ‘Jesus’ in prayer leads to legal questions

Apr 29

Florida Times Union, April 28, 2010

Jacksonville City Councilman Don Redman said he was trying to prove a point about religious freedom when he asked a Muslim man to pray during Tuesday’s council meeting.

But Redman’s own prayer at the beginning of the meeting has raised questions about religion in politics and whether overtly Christian prayers cross the line. And his request of Parvez Ahmed, a nominee to the city’s Human Rights Commission, was a decision he regretted and for which he later apologized, Redman said Wednesday.

There was a harsh reaction in the council chamber immediately after Redman asked Ahmed to “pray to your God.” Redman said Wednesday he was trying to make a point not because Ahmed is a Muslim, but because he is a board member for interfaith group OneJax, which in a 2007 letter asked the City Council to make its prayers inclusive, rather than sectarian.

Redman said his answer then, as it is now, is, “If somebody asks me to pray, I’m going to pray to my God.”

As the council’s chaplain for the fiscal year, Redman gives an invocation to begin each biweekly meeting. Tuesday’s meeting was no different. He began by asking the Lord to guide the council’s deliberations and decision-making and ended with a traditional Christian closing, “In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.”

Redman said he asked Ahmed to pray to show that he was comfortable hearing prayers of other faiths and that he was offended by OneJax’s request that he not pray in his normal manner. Instead, his comments came across as intolerant.

Redman said Wednesday that he regretted his line of questioning and decided to apologize to Ahmed. His assistant hand-delivered a letter to the professor. Redman said he told Ahmed he handled the situation inappropriately.

“It was a very poor reason,” Redman said, “but the reason I asked him was I had been asked by a group he belongs to to not pray in Jesus’ name in public City Council meetings.”

Councilman Stephen Joost followed Redman’s comments Tuesday night with a stinging rebuke. Wednesday, he said Redman is a good person who feels bad about how things came across.

It would have been better, Joost said, if Redman would have plainly stated his beef with OneJax.

“It just came out totally wrong for him,” Joost said.

Councilman Reggie Brown openly questioned the legality of Redman’s line of questioning Tuesday night. A day later, he still feels the council made itself vulnerable to allegations of unfair treatment.

“We’re setting up the strong possibility that someone can file claims against the city that there is disparity in the process of questioning candidates that are interested in becoming commission members because there is no consistency,” Brown said.

He suggested that the council create a template of questions for potential nominees.
“It’s sad we have to do that,” he said, “but we can’t afford any more black eyes than we received last night.”

The council used to invite citizens from around the city to offer the opening invocations, which led to representation by diverse denominations and faiths. But most recently, the chaplain has taken on the prayer duties.

The council’s past three chaplains – Redman, Ray Holt and Clay Yarborough – are all members of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville and have opened council meetings with Christian-specific prayers.

That puts the city at risk of a lawsuit, several constitutional law experts said.
Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on religious liberty. He said the Supreme Court has allowed legislative bodies to open meetings with prayer, but sectarian prayers muddy the waters.

“There are some indications in the Supreme Court opinions and holdings in lower-court opinions that it has to be interfaith prayer, non-sectarian prayer,” Laycock said. “Explicitly Christian prayer may well be unconstitutional, but that hasn’t clearly been settled yet.”

Laycock said even without a clear precedent prohibiting prayers like the one Redman spoke Tuesday, a risk is taken every time he does.

“They are certainly opening themselves up to a lawsuit by doing it that way,” he said.

Brenda Ezell, OneJax’s board chairwoman, said the group has researched its legal options and would not sue the city to end sectarian prayers at council meetings. It wants the council to accept its suggestions, though.

“What we asked is that the prayers be inclusive so that no one religious group would be isolated,” Ezell said.

Court challenges that invoke the Constitution’s establishment clause are common. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an Indiana high school valedictorian who believes the student-led prayer scheduled for his graduation violates his First Amendment rights.

A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled last Thursday that the observance of National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional because it amounts to a call for religious action.
Caroline Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said there are cases on both sides of the prayer issue.

“One could easily argue that a sectarian prayer to Jesus would seem to be favoring Christianity over other religions, and, in that case, would be unconstitutional,” she said. “And several courts have held that to be the case.”

However, she said other courts have interpreted other Supreme Court decisions as allowing any prayer “so long as it’s not proselytizing or denigrating any other religions.”

Council President Richard Clark said he had hoped to nominate a non-Christian as chaplain this fiscal year, but realized that all 19 council members identify themselves as Christian. He said he would be open to allowing non-Christian leaders to pray at the beginning of some council meetings, but no one has asked or complained.

“It’s never been an issue,” Clark said. “I’ve never even thought about it. It’s a nice way to open our meeting. It gets everybody in the right form of mind or in a nice place.”, (904) 359-4425

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